In the United States, wages for some workers are so low that they must work 70 hours a week just to pay the bills. That is the reality of life for Edith Figueroa, a grandmother from Boston whom I met while making a video for The Guardian on the Fight for $15, a campaign among fast food workers for union rights and a living wage.
The Fight for $15 is part of a wider labour-movement that is developing across the United States where the number of unionised workers has tumbled since the 1970s. In New York City, workers are building confidence under the banner of groups like the Laundry Workers Center (LWC). The LWC challenge businesses that use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to criminalise legitimate protest. And in Seattle, legislators are responding to worker-demands by increasing the minimum wage to $15.
The struggle by America’s fast food workers is an important chapter in the movement to challenge US income inequality which stands at an all time high. Incensed by the injustice of corporate chief executives earning 300 times the average worker, Sabrina Johnson, who also features in my video, is motivated by the bond she shares with fellow low-paid workers, many of whom, like her, are black women. So, while despair might be a feature of their daily routine, Johnson and Figueroa, both expressed optimism that their fight for a decent wage can be won.
The coming years will be a test for Cuba as money begins to favour particular parts of the economy over others. Many taxi drivers in Havana already earn more than doctors and such disparities are only likely to increase pressure on Cuba’s socialist economy.
It would be nice to think that a thawing in Washington’s attitude towards Havana might signal a period of bonhomie. Cubans, for example, could learn a lot from US technological expertise and in return provide Americans advice on building an exemplary healthcare system. Such hopes will likely seem naive given recent history but ordinary Cubans will take some comfort from a recent poll that shows almost two-thirds of American voters support a lifting of the blockade.
It is difficult to believe that it is already ten years since the Boxing Day tsunami destroyed thousands of lives across coastal south and south east Asia. Indonesia bore the brunt of the waves but many lives were also lost in Sri Lanka and south India.
I was living in New Delhi at the time and arrived on the Sri Lankan coast 24 hours after the first waves hit the shore. It was difficult for anyone to comprehend the scale of the disaster and it took many months and years for those affected to recover. While the destructive force of the tsunami itself generated significant international interest, it was the slower process of rehabilitation that provided insight into just how individuals and institutions cope with and respond to calamity and grief.
Each child had to adapt to changed circumstances and cope with emotions no one in their family could have possibly anticipated. The younger children seemed to adjust more quickly than their older siblings. And, while grief rendered some silent, in others it provoked a real sense of anger. Some children became withdrawn while others craved attention and resorted to disruptive behaviour. For all of the children, the experience of losing a parent seemed to strengthen the bond they shared with their brothers and sisters.
The loss of a parent meant that some children I photographed inherited responsibilities that provided distraction from their own painful emotions.Sivaranjini Krishnamurthy lost her mother to the tsunami. She and her four younger sisters were then placed in an orphanage by their father. At twelve years old, Sivaranjini took on the role of a mother to her younger sisters. Though she continued to attend school and received the support of orphanage staff, she sacrificed much of her own childhood to take care of her siblings.
For Sivaranjini and the other children whose experiences I photographed, the tsunami of 2004 was a defining event in their lives and the terrible personal upheaval they suffered shaped all of their futures. I will be thinking of them today.
If you are a photographer and/or filmmaker, please consider offering your thoughts too. It should not require too much time to answer the nine questions – though I certainly spent more than the five minutes Duckrabbit suggested it would take!
What are the ways you collect consent for ethical usage of images ? e.g. written, audio, video, other. Explain. If I am photographing a sensitive subject like HIV/AIDS I will get written consent (as with the photograph above). If I am photographing any other situation that involves me going into someone’s private space, I will ask for consent but this is almost always aural and I rarely record this consent. If people decline then of course I do not photograph them.
While it is incredibly important to respect the people you photograph I have worked extensively in India and I sometimes wonder what value a consent form has when presented to an illiterate person who has little understanding of the world beyond their village. In India (and perhaps other countries too), there is a reluctance to sign your name to anything. Many families have lost land or relinquished rights because they have signed their name on a piece of paper. In this context, the logical response to someone holding out a consent form is to ask: what do they want to take from me?
If I am in a public area, I do not seek the consent of everyone who is depicted in the photograph because this is just not practical. I look at photographs, past and present, that have real historical or cultural value. I think it unlikely that all but a very few (whether in the Developed or Developing world) were taken with explicit consent. Yet these photographs can be incredibly valuable in expressing empathy and contributing to our understanding of each other and of the past. Some of these photographs record significant historical events. Photography that is authentic and true to a subject must be encouraged when so many photographs that do involve consent (advertising, selfies etc) are concocted images of reality.
How do you capture an ethical representation of your subject to avoid issues like cultural or stereotypical misrepresentations? When photographing, I hope to influence my subjects as little as possible. This is of course never completely achievable but by remaining an observer, reducing my input into a scene and revealing as little of my own feelings as possible, I try to capture activity as authentically as possible. For example – without being rude – I do not respond when children play to the camera. Capturing photographs of children doing what children do when there is no camera is the outcome I seek. I also think respecting the dignity of a subject is fundamental. I ask myself: would I be happy to be photographed in this way?
If you are given a brief which is different to your working process or may conflict with your ethical practices; how would you handle this?I would make my feelings known. I like to think people assign me because of my approach and the experience I can bring to a project and will therefor respect my opinion when planning for an assignment. There are times when I have photographed events which I’m not entirely comfortable with. For example a British celebrity in the home of a bewildered rural Indian family. I certainly would not want to photograph these situations every day (and do so rarely) but I do not consider this sufficient a conflict in my mind to warrant me declining the work.
Permission to make this video on post-conflict resolution in Uganda for Christian Aid required the payment of a fee to the head of the village in which I filmed.
Do you think people should be paid for being photographed? (e.g. cash, food, transport, given copies of photos). Consider your answer in relation to context and cultural norms. ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ and please explain why.I would say no but if someone has taken a day off work to be photographed then I would compensate them for their time. I almost never pay people for being photographed or filmed. I worked in Uganda recently and the only way to film people in a particular village (see video above) was to pay the head of the village. But paying almost always influences the relationship between a photographer and a subject. Subjects are more likely to perform for the camera. They might walk to into a public street and be photographed alongside a dozen others who may also want to be paid and resent it when they are not. It is much better to arrange for copies of photos to be given as compensation.
What advice would you give to an inexperienced photographer about collecting consent? Make sure people understand why you are photographing them. If they raise an objection, walk away. It is wrong to photograph in such a situation (unless in the public interest: for example a public official failing to fulfil their duty as in the photograph above) and you rarely end up with decent photographs anyway.
CNN International just interviewed me about my experience of photographing in India as part of their series Parting Shots. Its a short segment in which I discuss the privilege of working in India over the past fifteen years and my thoughts on issues around the recent national election.